Market intelligence: Learning from Bhopal

14 December 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Twenty-five years after Bhopal, India's biggest industrial disaster, opinion remains divided over whether lessons from the tragedy have been learned.

It was on the night of December 2, 1984, that a gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant at Bhopal killed an estimated 7,000 people. Thousands more were affected, and some are still suffering, as a result of exposure to toxic methyl iscocyanate.

It was a harsh reminder to the industry of the dangers of the chemical processes and products it deals with on a daily basis.

The industry did respond quickly to ensure that another Bhopal does not take place. Not only was the Responsible Care movement born after the tragedy, but laws and regulations were introduced by governments worldwide to ensure that adequate attention was paid to safety.

After so many years, Bhopal may now be a distant memory. But H.S. Karangale, director general of the Indian Chemical Council (ICC), stresses that Indian companies are conscious of the necessity to take precautions.

"The Indian chemical industry has taken care; it has learnt a lesson. Bhopal canhappen only if safety is not taken care of," Karangale says.

And efforts to make operations safer are continuing, with the ICC setting up a new process-safety center this year aimed at training plant operators.

The big companies have focused on safety, health and environment (SHE) practices, but there is still a problem with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), says S.K. Hazra, managing director of supply chain services provider Aegis Logistics and chairman of ICC's SHE expert committee.

This has, perhaps, reinforced public perceptions that the industry has done enough.

Rachna Dhingra, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), however, insists that lessons have not been learned. "It is just that corporations have become smarter in using public relations. It is a big hoax. They are lobbying government officials to push their agenda," she says.

"Claims [by companies] have to be questioned. Why are toxic chemicals being made? We see explosions and leaks happening all over the world," she adds, citing the explosion at a Bayer CropScience plant in Charleston, West Virginia, US, last year, which killed two people. The blast was also dangerously close to a methyl iscocyanate storage tank.

The US Chemical Safety Board said, after an investigation, that a series of process-safety management deficiencies had caused the accident. The Germany-headquartered Bayer subsequently decided to cut methyl isocyanate inventory at the site by 80%.

The lessons from Bhopal cannot be forgotten.

ICJB has been fighting a long battle with the Indian government and US-based Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001. It wants the government to hold Dow legally responsible for killing people and causing environmental damage. It would like the government to appoint a committee that will handle the long-term rehabilitation of the affected people of Bhopal.

ICBJ also wants a solution to another major problem - cleaning up the Union Carbide plant site at Bhopal.

Dhingra says that 350 tonnes of semi-processed pesticides are still at the site. In addition to this, there are 21 dump spots outside the plant. This has resulted in groundwater contamination and has affected the health of people living in the vicinity.

Based on the "polluter pays" principle, the ICBJ would like Dow to take responsibility. However, Union Carbide has in the past spent $2m to clean up the site and handed it over to the state government. The matter is currently being heard in a local court.

And Dow has repeatedly stated that it has no liabilities, as it has never owned or operated the Bhopal site.

This response has failed to satisfy activists, who have been regularly blocking Dow's efforts to expand its presence in India. Last year, protestors set fire to Dow's research center, which is under construction at Pune, in Maharashtra.

"Opposing an R&D center is not correct; it's unfortunate," says Karangale.

But with the Bhopal issue yet to be fully resolved and activists keeping the memory alive, Dow's problems in India are unlikely to fade quickly.

There are other areas where Bhopal has had an impact. "Companies are reluctant to pursue phosgene chemistry after Bhopal," according to a source from an Indian chemical company. "India has very few players in this area, while China has many. 'Why take on the headache?' is a common feeling."

Added to this is the fear of taking on NGOs. Overall, the industry may have learned crucial lessons from the Bhopal tragedy. But 25 years on, it looks like some scars will always remain.

By: Malini Hariharan
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